Urban Planning 101 – Mixed Use
Here at Postgreen we spend a lot of time fussing over our buildings. We go back and forth with our architects over floor plans, deliberate over finishes and constantly look for supplies of sustainably harvested or recycled “green” building products. We figure, if we’re going to put our name on it we want it to be something we can be proud of. But if you’re developing a piece of land in a city, or in many cases multiple pieces of land, issues of urban planning are some of the first considerations driving the design process. Whether its fighting with the zoning department for usage variances or trying to squeeze a few more inches in allowable building height to fit that green roof, we end up first thinking about our projects at an urban scale. Since no one at Postgreen has any official title in urban planning it’s something we’ve had to learn on our own.
To keep you all informed and to give us a solid reason to keep reading the books we love but really don’t have for we’ve decided to start a series of blog posts. Let’s call it “Urban Planning 101″. Hopefully you find some of these ideas as interesting as we do and will keep an eye out for some of them popping up in our projects.
There is no better place to start urban planning 101 than with Jane Jacobs, the activist/journalist who opposed the great urban planner Robert Moses. Jacob’s opposed Moses’ plans for more highways, parking lots and high-rise residential buildings with more walkable streets, greater building density and fewer cars. She wanted to make the city pedestrian friendly because above all else, cities are meant for people.
So how do you make a city pedestrian friendly? Well first you need people to feel safe walking down the streets. The best way to do this according to Jacobs’ is to “put eyes on the street” and of course behind those eyes are people. Although a city is full of strangers it is those strangers occupying the streets around the clock that will make it feel safe. This is where “mixed use” becomes important.
If a certain neighborhood is filled with residential building after residential building, (that would be a single use neighborhood in urban planning lingo) people will be walking down the streets on their way to and from work and maybe after work to go out to eat. That’s people on the street from about 6-9 in the morning and then 5-8 in the evening but during the mid day and night there is no reason for anyone to be on that street. Now put a commercial store on that block and suddenly shoppers are walking down the street throughout the day. What’s even better is that shopkeepers typically hate dirty sidewalks, broken windows and holdups. The more inviting their street feels the more business they will get so it is in their best interest to maintain their block. Once you’ve got that midday use, add a bar or restaurant and you’ve got people stumbling around until 2 or 3 in the morning, and yes, drunk eyes are still better than no eyes.
Mixing up building uses (mixed use neighborhood) is a great way to get people to use the streets. It puts them to work as unofficial policers of street activity. They don’t get paid and there’s no corruption, what could be better?
Now this whole safe street thing is about to snowball. Once a street becomes more crowded with people walking around others treat it as kind of a spectacle and will come out just to sit and watch. Sure I imagine most of these watchers are retiree’s with nothing better to do, but their eyes work too… well sort of. I’m sure mothers walk the streets with their kids during the day also, just to get them out of the house. The bottom line is, once a street becomes safer and more exciting to walk down it begins to solidify itself as a safe street.
When Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs were still duking it out, a lot of urban planners were under the impression that cities had to be more organized with building uses all grouped together; residences in one area, shops in another, arts and culture in another. But really cities have to be messy. Every neighborhood needs a little bit of each use. The activity on one street should bleed into the next and boundaries should be amorphous.
Typically neighborhood zoning is set up for at least a minimal amount of mixing. In many heavily zoned residential neighborhoods the corner lots are zoned for commercial/mixed use. Corner lots are great for commercial space because the owner gets two street fronts to advertise his business and two streets means twice as many passerby’s. Although just because these lots are often zoned for commercial/mixed use they don’t always attract a commercial interest and thus lie vacant or are taken up as a residence. In some of our more recent projects, Folsom Powerhouse and ReNewbold we’ve tried to bring back the commercial corner. Each property is in a heavily residential area and could use a little more mixing. At ReNewbold we’re aiming for a retail tenant which would get people walking down the street during the day. At Folsom Powerhouse we’re creating an office space for a small business to get set up. Although a small office isn’t necessarily a big draw for pedestrians it can bring in workers and clients from out of town or other parts of the city who may use public transportation to reach the office or just spend money on the occasional lunch nearby. Things like this help distribute the wealth of a city and strengthen other local businesses.
Creating mixed use neighborhoods is the crux of urban planning. It’s something we’d love to do more of, despite the fact that it often means more zoning variances filed with the city of Philadelphia. Ugh. But with its power to change the city for the better how could we not do it. Be on the lookout for some Postgreen work on Frankford Ave utilizing the mixed use concept. This is a commercial corridor we love, especially since its in our neighborhood. Naturally we want to see it full of people buying clothes, eating at restaurants, going grocery shopping, getting their car fixed, grabbing a drink, seeing a show, lounging in the park and being able to do all this just short walk from their home.